Gratitude: It’s what this season is about—and it’s a value we hope to instill in our children for the rest of their lives. And with good reason: Not only is raising grateful kids important for the future of our communities, but new research is showing that it may also hold a key to overall happiness and well-being. Studies have shown that grateful kids are not only mentally and emotionally better off than their non-grateful peers; they’re also less materialistic and more successful academically. One study from California State University found that grateful teens were less likely to skip class, cheat on exams, and drink or use drugs. Even kids who didn’t report feelings of gratitude at the beginning of the four-year study still benefited if they developed it over time—they had fewer behavioral problems and developed a more positive outlook on life.
Teaching your child to say “thank you” and having an annual “what I’m grateful for” recitation during Thanksgiving dinner are great ways to set a foundation of thankfulness, but these aren’t tactics that, by themselves, are likely to make your child recognize all she has to be grateful for. Gratitude is something that has to be modeled and practiced, says Jenny Friedman, Ph.D., co-author of Doing Good Together: 101 Easy Meaningful Service Projects for Families, Schools, and Communities and executive director of the family volunteer nonprofit of the same name. “It can really be invisible in some ways unless you make it less so by being intentional,” she says. Here, advice from Friedman and other experts on instilling a sense of appreciation—and the empathy and compassion that go along with it—that your kids will carry into adulthood.
The sooner you focus your efforts on incorporating gratitude into your kids’ lives, the sooner they’ll start translating it into real, everyday behavior, says psychologist Jeffrey Froh, Psy.D., a leading researcher in the field of gratitude and co-author of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. While most research on gratitude has been conducted on adults or teens, a recent study published by researchers at Hofstra University found that when elementary school students were taught a weeklong curriculum on giving, their gratitude grew and their appreciation translated into action. When given the choice to hang out or write thank-you notes after a PTA presentation, nearly 44 percent of the kids who participated in the curriculum opted to write the notes, while only 25 percent of the kids who didn’t receive the curriculum did the same.
Parents see the impact of starting early, too. When Erin McGinn’s oldest daughter entered kindergarten, the family started incorporating gratitude into their daily prayers. “We’ve always prayed about who or what we were thankful for,” says McGinn, a lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut. “It wasn’t about praying for that new iPad or video game; it was about praying for our sick dog or being thankful that Grandma and Grandpa are healthy.” Today, when kids Maeze, 4, Fiona, 6, and Kaitlin, 8, sit down for dinner, they talk about the best and worst part of their days. “We don’t hear that the girls are glad for a new toy,” McGinn says. “The best part of their day is seeing a friend or the fun they had playing a game.”
Create a Gratitude Ritual
Dinner customs like the one used by the McGinn family are popular among parents working to help kids realize all they have to be grateful for, says Friedman. There are also many things you can do around the house that will help keep the conversation going: String up a paper chain in the kitchen or family room and have each person write down one thing he’s thankful for each day over the holiday season and add it to the chain. Or cover a window or wall in sticky notes, each expressing appreciation for something or someone.
“We like to encourage families to talk each day about who you’ve helped and who’s helped you,” Friedman says. Small, everyday actions are often more effective than large efforts, Friedman says, since they constantly reinforce the idea of gratitude. And explaining why you’re grateful will help your child understand the impact of her actions. “In front of your kids, express appreciation for something your spouse did or the chef of the restaurant where you ate dinner,” Friedman advises. “When you feel appreciation, say it out loud.”
Think Big, But Keep it Simple
The parents Friedman works with have a deep desire to help their kids see the problems outside their own homes and instill the belief that they can make a difference, but they also struggle with the question of age-appropriateness. Seeing you write a check is too abstract, but young children aren’t ready for the hands-on work of volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping to build a family a home. One suggestion from Friedman: If you’re considering donating to a charity, try an activity called Filling an Empty Bowl. Pick a cause your family is interested in, and every day over the course of a month, set aside 10 minutes to talk about the issue. Then count something in your house, like the number of stuffed animals or all the items in your fridge, and put the corresponding amount of loose change into an empty bowl to donate toward your cause at the end of the month.
“Even 10 minutes with your child is a great way to have a conversation about an important issue and how you can help,” she says. Froh also prefers simpler projects and ideas: “We have what we call ‘The PB & J Gang’ that gets together every month to make sandwiches for the less fortunate,” he says. “But even something as simple as watering the neighbors’ flowers while they’re away or shoveling a friend’s driveway after a snowstorm allows kids to see the importance of giving back while feeling like a part of their world.”
Tailor Projects to Your Child’s Interests
“Kids who are grateful are more likely to want to give back to their community and to use their strengths to do it,” says Froh. “So the best way to get them involved is to keep projects in line with their strengths and interests.” Spend time with your child and really listen to what she’s saying, says Froh. “Ask kids the ‘why’ questions—if your child says she wants to be a teacher, ask her why. This will help you tap into what she cares about.”
Sometimes a small conversation turns into something big. When Sharon Earle’s then 4-year-old son Bryson became very concerned about a homeless man they saw in their hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, she turned his compassion into a conversation about homelessness and how their family could help. Now 13, Bryson and his three other siblings all collect coats and blankets at their annual holiday party, and on Christmas morning “before we open a gift or even eat breakfast,” they distribute them to heavily populated homeless areas throughout the city. They also use spare change they’ve accumulated throughout the year to buy food and water to take with them. “The kids really look forward to it,” says Earle. “They even invite their friends to come along.”
Emphasize needs over wants
Studies have shown that, in recent years, a desire to make lots of money has increased while a willingness to work hard to earn it has decreased. But experts underscore that keeping materialism in check is key to fostering thankfulness. McGinn tries to reinforce gratitude concepts through regular conversations with her daughters about how hard she works for the money she makes and how important it is for the family to put that paycheck to good use. The things that matter most, she says, are needs (like food and clothes), as opposed to wants, and helping those who are less fortunate. (Another good idea is to spend money on experiences with your family, like a day trip or entertainment event, rather than buying material goods. This will help teach your kids to value time with loved ones over things.)
Parents should also be careful with the language they choose when trying to help kids be thankful for what they do have. Friedman suggests avoiding constant comparisons to others. “You have to be careful about saying ‘Oh those poor kids, they don’t have a place to live, we’re so lucky,'” says Friedman. This emphasizes the differences between your children and those who are less fortunate, when true empathy is really developed when they realize how similar we all are. Instead, explain that “sometimes people go through a hard time, just like we have, and that others have helped us, so now we get to help someone else. It’s all about reciprocity and paying it forward,” Friedman says.